Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old played by
, is a self-composed Arkansan who kept the books for her father's ranch until her father was shot and killed. The time is the 1870s, the West is wild, and Mattie - determined to avenge her father's death and bring the perpetrator to justice, if not to his demise - speaks with a flinty eloquence that shows uncanny intelligence and resolve.
In Joel and Ethan Coen's rousing adaptation of the Charles Portis novel - their True Grit opened Wednesday - Mattie drops words like braggadocio with aplomb. When Rooster Cogburn, the grizzled U.S. Marshal she hires for the hunt - Jeff Bridges, in eyepatch and cowpoke couture - leaves her a note, she reproves him later for misspelling futile. Asked why she, and not her mother, is tending to the funeral arrangements and the family's business affairs, Mattie responds that "my mother is indecisive and hobbled with grief." And Mattie calls a group of crusty outlaws, in whose company she unfortunately finds herself, "a congress of louts."
This is not the way a girl from the San Fernando Valley, born in the last years of the 20th century, is supposed to speak.
"The language, obviously, was completely new to me, and it's something that I had to really make sure I understood," says Steinfeld, who was 13 when she shot True Grit in Texas and New Mexico, and is 14 now. "I mean, I just never heard anything like it, so it really was like learning a new language for me. I had to go through the screenplay and make sure that I understood what everything meant, and then go back through it and make sure I understood what everything meant to me emotionally - and how I could relate to it in my own life."
Steinfeld was in New York recently to appear on David Letterman's Late Show. "I'm excited, and I'm really nervous," she says, on the phone. Which are the words she uses to describe how she felt as she went through the audition process almost a year ago, winning out over more than 15,000 girls to land the pivotal role. (In the 1969 adaptation of Portis' book, Kim Darby starred as Mattie Ross, opposite John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn - a performance that won the Hollywood icon his Oscar.)
"I was put on tape the first week in January," recalls Steinfeld, who did the scene in which she haggles winningly with a tightfisted stable owner. "I got a callback two days later to read with the casting director of the film, and they told us it would be a month at that point if we were to hear anything at all. And five weeks later, I was called in to read for the Coen brothers."
And to read for them opposite Bridges.
Intimidating? A little.
"But I have to say, honestly, that I was really excited, because I was really prepared. During that five-week period, not knowing if I was going to get a call or not, I was still working on the material and familiarizing myself with it and just making sure, if the time came. And it did."
Steinfeld's father is a personal trainer, her mother an interior decorator. They let her take acting lessons after she saw her cousin on a TV commercial and thought that was something she could do. Her first paying job: an ad for the Soda Pop Girls. Her first TV gig: a guest spot on Kelsey Grammer's short-lived sitcom Back to You.
Her role models: Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Diane Lane, and "of course, Jodie Foster." With the exception of Roberts, who was in her early 20s when she started acting, all began their chosen profession when they were kids.
"That's what inspires me the most about them, of course, is the fact that they've maintained such amazing careers since they were my age," says Steinfeld, who hopes to follow a similar path.
"That's really my goal," she says. "Like, yeah."
"Speech" therapy. And speaking of rhetorical flair and easy poise (poise - another word Steinfeld's Mattie deploys), Colin Firth faced an altogether different challenge in his portrait of the stammering English monarch, George VI, in The King's Speech. Here is a man who cannot get a sentence out without mauling it in mad, helpless anxiety.
And Firth, the well-spoken Brit whose livelihood depends on language, had to teach himself how to not address people with fluency and finesse. There's a certain irony there.
"It's an irony, yes, but it also, if one thinks about it, fits," explains Firth. "Because actors are people who will have the anxiety dream - the dream in which you go out in front of thousands of people and you open your mouth and nothing comes.
"If you're lucky, you wake up from that dream. If you're not, your nightmare is happening and you've forgotten all your lines. So, a terror of speaking in front of a crowd is not something that's alien to me at all. . . .
"On top of that, I think what was so, so debilitating for a man like George VI was that his mind was so agile. He had so much that he could say, he was so smart. If you read letters, quotes, this was a man who had an elegant mind, and he was misjudged. Because he couldn't speak, people thought he was dull-witted. It was a terrible, terrible injustice. . . .
"I've just been reading some of Mark Twain's writings. Just imagine if that man had had a stammer. Or Oscar Wilde. I'm not quite putting George VI on the level of those men in terms of literary wit, but for the world to think you have nothing to say just because of this, it must have been overwhelmingly traumatic."
The worst. OK, The King's Speech, True Grit, easily among the best films of the year. But what about the insupportably awful, the offensive, the millions-of-dollars-wasted spilth released by the studios over the last 12 months? Herewith, my Top Five - or Bottom Five, actually - of 2010.
Grown Ups - Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, and company in a reunion movie that's so lazy, nobody bothered to write a script.
Gulliver's Travels - The just-opened Jack Black (ahem) comedy is a joke-free retelling of Jonathan Swift's yarn. It's bad enough that the School of Rock star lands on Lilliput, but how did that Transformer-like 'bot get there?
Jonah Hex - Josh Brolin and Megan Fox strike bad-boy (and bad-girl) poses in this green-screen shoot-'em-up adapted from the DC Comic. Hex's face is a holy mess, and so is the movie.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - Jake Gyllenhaal muscles up, Gemma Artherton applies the Coppertone, and Ben Kingsley goes wild with villainy in this sword-and-sandals washout.
The Wolfman - Benicio Del Toro turns lycanthropic with the help of makeup, prosthetics, and CG in this all-atmosphere and no-brains retelling of the classic horror tale. Anthony Hopkins is Wolfy's dad, Sir John. Here's the big, revelatory exchange between the two:
Lawrence Talbot: You killed my mother.
Sir John Talbot: Yes, I suppose I did.